Teacher on fatal trip unaware of guide for schools

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The Independent Online

A school teacher told an inquest yesterday that he had not even heard of a government handbook offering advice on how to conduct school trips when he took a river walk that ended with two teenage girls being swept to their deaths.

Andy Miller said he and his fellow teacher, Liz Schofield, had not specified which of them was leading the trip and neither had obtained a weather forecast. Nor had he received any guidance from the teacher from whom he took over at the last minute because of illness.

Mr Miller knew there had been a lot of rain before he led the afternoon walk but he had not discussed with Ms Schofield circumstances in which the walk might be cancelled. Neither had he examined the beck when he parked the school minibus near by. "I could hear the beck but I don't know how the water compared to previous years," he said.

Mr Miller, 48, was giving evidence on the sixth day of the inquest, at Harrogate, North Yorkshire, into the deaths of Hannah Black, 13, and Rochelle Cauvet, 14, who were drowned at Stainforth Beck, near Settle in the Yorkshire Dales in October 2000.

Mr Miller, head of religious studies at Royds comprehensive school, Oulton, near Leeds, told the inquest jury he was a keen fell-runner but, with four or five exceptions, had avoided river walks because he feared injuries. The activity involves walking in the water along the side of a stream and scrambling over obstacles,

As Mr Miller and the school party set off upstream some of the pupils quickly lost their footing. "I wasn't sure if the beck bottom was dropping or if the water was getting deeper but I felt it was getting stronger," he said.

They had made just 70 metres' progress and he was about to call off the walk when "above the normal noise" he heard "some serious shouting".

He told the jury: "I looked round and I saw there was agitated movement. I immediately got out of the beck and started to look back and saw what I thought was a problem . . . behind Ms Schofield. I just saw somebody in the water and I just ran for the gate."

He either went through or jumped over the gate, vaulted a low wall and struggled to get past boulders before finding a place at the side of the beck where he could get at Rochelle.

"I grabbed her shoulder but then the water knocked me off my feet and we tumbled down the beck together.

"I don't know how far we went, 20 or 30 metres perhaps. I made two efforts to get the girl to the side of the bank but the water was quite fast."

Mr Miller, his voice close to breaking under the intent gaze of Rochelle's parents sitting three feet away, said he had already been swept in himself when, with one hand on Rochelle's left shoulder and the other holding on to a broken tree branch for a second concerted attempt to pull her ashore, he lost his grip.

The powerful, though shallow, water swept her away towards a small waterfall several metres downstream.

Mr Miller told the inquest: "I have had nightmares about it. I have said to myself, 'Did I let go?' but I do not think I did. To be honest, I couldn't hold on any longer."

After losing Rochelle, the teacher turned round and saw Hannah sweep past him in the middle of the beck. "I wished I was still in the beck when she went past. I did not even think to shout, 'Stand up'. Total despair," he said.

In August, the Crown Prosecution Service decided there was insufficient evidence to bring manslaughter charges against Mr Miller and Ms Schofield.

Under questioning from assistant North Yorkshire coroner, John Sleightholme, Mr Miller said he had never heard of handbooks about school trips published by the Department of Education or his employers, Leeds City Council, before the trip to the Dales.

When he was asked whether he was the leader of the trip, given that he drove the mini-bus, entered the river and led the walk, he replied: "No". There was no agreement as to who was in charge, he said.

Ronald Charnley, a river bailiff, said he was surprised that anyone had attempted to walk the beck when the water level was so high. "I have come across some pretty ridiculous things. It was foolhardy in the extreme," he said.

The inquest continues.

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